Monday, January 14, 2008

Jena 6 controversy exposed as a fraud

I have read numerous accounts of the so-called Jena 6 controversy. The worst case that I've heard made is that the prosecutors "over-charged" the black kids for their attack on a white kid. Given the facts, I disagree. The other charge that the school and community did not address a "racial hate crime" of a noose found is not substantial enough for me. There could be a racial message being sent or it could have been a football prank. It could have been a racial prank. While that may be undesirable it shouldn't be the cause of a national outrage. The environment around the school at the time doesn't suggest it was racial bigotry. Even if it was, there is no connection between that, and the unprovoked attack on another student some time later.

The Weekly Standard gives the best explanation of the events that I've come across. It rightfully questions the credibility of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and others who have made grand sweeping assertions about this case. It seems in the final analysis we have a few black teens, some with criminal histories doing something terribly wrong, and then playing the race card trying to be exonerated.

The term "race card" is a cynical technique where someone accuses his opponent in whatever is occurring of being racially biased and motivated by hatred rather than a more legitimate purpose. The charge is not supported by the evidence.

The case of the amazing disappearing hate crime

In early December the case of the "Jena Six"--the six African-American high school students in Louisiana accused of viciously beating a white classmate in 2006--collapsed dramatically with a felony guilty plea by one of the defendants. As something that was going to trigger "America's next great civil rights movement" (to quote National Public Radio) and grassroots protests against the "new Jim Crow" and the systematic discrimination against blacks in the criminal justice system, this was quite a letdown.

But the best known of the Jena Six, Mychal Bell, appeared with his team of lawyers at the parish courthouse in this tiny Central Louisiana town of 3,000 on December 3 and pled guilty to second-degree battery, to intentionally inflicting serious bodily injury on another person. In doing so, Bell--who will turn 18 this month and who had repeatedly denied any involvement in the attack--admitted that on December 4, 2006, he hit 17-year-old Justin Barker from behind, slamming Barker's head against a concrete beam outside the gym at Jena High School and knocking him unconscious, and that he then joined a group in stomping and kicking Barker in the head. Bell agreed to serve 18 months in juvenile custody for the offense and to "testify truthfully" concerning the involvement of the other five members of the Jena Six

Three months before the attack on Barker, on the morning of August 31, teachers and administrators at Jena High School had discovered two crudely constructed hangman's nooses made of nylon rope hanging from an oak tree in the center of the campus. The nooses were promptly cut down so that few students of any race actually saw them, and the perpetrators, three white male students, were identified and disciplined--fairly severely, school officials later revealed, with nine-day suspensions during which they had to attend classes at an alternative school off-campus and go to extended counseling sessions with their families.

Given the current state of historical illiteracy among young people, such ignorance certainly is conceivable. The three students maintained that the nooses were a school spirit-prompted prank directed at a rival school's Western-themed football team (the youths said they were inspired by a hanging in the 1980s television miniseries Lonesome Dove).

The nooses were in Jena High's school colors--one black, one gold-- high-school football is a major fall event in the rural South; and inter-school pranks, such as draping rival campuses with toilet paper, are frequent.

It is thus possible that the nooses were intended as a joke (although certainly in appalling taste) aimed at the previous day's joking comment. The high school's principal recommended expulsion for the three students involved (their names have never been made public), but the school board for LaSalle Parish settled on the lesser punishment on grounds that the three youths had no prior disciplinary records and seemed genuinely remorseful.

No one who subsequently investigated the noose incident--and that included sheriff's deputies for LaSalle Parish and the U.S. attorney for Central Louisiana, -Donald Washington, who is black himself and led a behind-the-scenes FBI probe of the Jena nooses within days of their discovery--found any connection between the nooses and the attack on Barker in December. Nonetheless, the nooses--and the supposedly unduly lenient punishment meted out to the boys who hung them--became the causal linchpin of the twin demands of the Jena Six cause: that the noose-hangers be criminally prosecuted for hate crimes and that all criminal charges be dismissed against the six defendants in the attack on Barker.

Adding to Bell's list of grievances was the fact that he had been charged under a Louisiana statute that permits juveniles over the age of 15 to be tried as adults for certain crimes. Bell and the four adults among the Jena Six were originally charged with one of those listed crimes: attempted second-degree murder. The theory was that the repeated kicks to Barker's head could have killed him had not students--white and black--and teachers at Jena High managed to pull the assailants off him. The prosecutor, LaSalle Parish district attorney Reed Walters, ultimately dropped that charge just before Bell's trial

Walters also offered Bell the opportunity in June to plead guilty as an adult to second-degree battery--a deal nearly identical to the one that Bell would accept in December--but Bell, against the advice of the public defender representing him, turned down the offer. On June 28, after a three-day trial, an all-white jury (the lack of blacks on the jury was another miscarriage of justice, according to Bell's supporters, although it was due to the fact that only 50 of the 150 residents of LaSalle Parish who had been summoned for jury duty actually appeared and none of those who showed up were black) that was supposedly tainted by the presence of jurors with ties to the prosecution (which consisted of the fact that five of the six jurors were acquainted with some of the witnesses, as was inevitable in such a small community) found Bell guilty of aggravated second-degree battery.

The August 24 hearing revealed that Bell was in fact already on juvenile-court probation for four previous convictions of violent offenses--two involving battery and two for intentional destruction of property--all committed between December 2005 and September 2006. The records of those earlier juvenile proceedings are sealed, but it is widely believed in Jena that the victims of all four crimes were black and that the victim of the first battery, committed on Christmas Day in 2005, was a 17-year-old girl.
These new disclosures made it reasonable to wonder why, if Jena was such a racist town, school officials allowed Bell--and his co-defendant Carwin Jones who had an aggravated battery charge on his record--to continue to play football despite a criminal history that would automatically disqualify a student-athlete at most high schools. The disclosure of Bell's full criminal record also suggested that the supposedly incompetent Blane Williams, who had represented Bell in all four prior matters, had done an admirable job of keeping his client out of jail as the convictions mounted.

Suddenly the story of the Jena Six was starting to look more like "Thug4Life" than "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." According to a story in the Town Talk--a Gannett-owned daily newspaper published in nearby Alexandria (pop. 46,000), the largest city in Central Louisiana--both Bell's parents and the parents of the other members of the Jena Six expressed visible "shock" and "unease" in the courtroom when Bell accepted a plea bargain in which he admitted his guilt and agreed to testify, if called upon, against his five co-defendants. They had all repeatedly asserted their sons' innocence and insisted that they would accept nothing less than complete exoneration.
But, by the time of the plea bargain, Jena Six supporters were already tiptoeing away from the case, as revelations about Bell's criminal history and the lack of any connection between the attack on Barker and the nooses began to filter into the press. The September 20 demonstration, far from marking the beginning of a massive grassroots movement actually marked its high point. Even that rally drew fewer than half the 50,000 attendees that had been expected. (Mos Def delivered a rambling excoriation of the large number of his fellow rap musicians who had failed to join him at the protest.)

Nearly all the symbolic themes--hate crimes, Jim Crow justice, rogue prosecution, and the ghosts of the Old South that were supposed to be alive and well in Jena--that attached themselves to the Jena Six case as the months rolled by can be traced to the work of a single man: Alan Bean, a white American Baptist minister who operates an organization called the Friends of Justice in Arlington, Texas.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that Jena officials might have averted the tarring their town has taken. The notion of prosecuting the high-school noose-hangers for hate crimes was at best far-fetched. Louisiana's hate-crime statute comes into play only when a violent crime--murder, battery, sexual assault, or arson, for example--accompanies the manifestation of racial or other hatred. There are also serious First Amendment problems with turning a symbol into a hate crime: a noose, like a swastika in Skokie, that is not directed at a specific individual may simply be an ugly display of free expression that the Constitution protects along with other unpopular speech.

Finally, many of the whites in Jena, including school officials, refused to talk to the press, especially after the airing of Mangold's documentary. This allowed wrong impressions to fester: that the noose-hangers had gotten off with just "a few days' suspension," for example, was widely reported. The silence made it seem that Jena's white residents had something to hide.
But the fact remains that the Jena Six case climbed to its rickety position as a national symbol of racial injustice largely because a lot of people, some professional activists and many members of the press, wanted it to do so.

As time passed during the fall of 2007, even some of the black bloggers who had initially rallied to the cause of the Jena Six became less enamored of their poster children. It did not help when Witt filed a story on November 11 pointing out that at least half of the $500,000 that supporters had sent to the Jena Six defense fund--controlled by the parents of the Jena Six--and similar funds set up to cover the group's legal expenses could not be accounted for. A photograph posted by Robert Bailey Jr. on his MySpace page showing him with wads of $100 bills stuffed in his mouth did not help, nor did an appearance by Jena Six members Carwin Jones and Bryant Purvis in full rapper attire as presenters at Black Entertainment Television's Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta on October 18. "Seriously, what the hell are you people thinking?" complained the black blog Cincy Report as the facts about Mychal Bell's past criminal history began to air. In a post on BlackAmericaWeb titled "Jena Six, My Foot," Gregory Kane wrote, "Some of us even went overboard, comparing what happened to the Jena Six to what happened to the Scottsboro Boys."

Even Bean, who could be said to have organized the whole debacle, expressed some regrets, maintaining that his Jena Six publicity campaign had never intended to minimize either the injuries to Barker or the enormity of the crime committed against him. "When we said, 'Free the Jena Six,' we only meant that they should be free on bail and should get a fair trial," said Bean. "But I warned people in Jena that once the media got hold of this case, I couldn't control what they said about it, and they were going to give Jena a black eye." "What happened in Jena was a Greek tragedy," he said.
A Greek tragedy indeed, but one in which the hubris that precipitated the town's downfall was largely on the part of Bean himself and the many in the media who wanted so badly to believe that the version of the events he fed them was true.

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